Behaviour change needs strong legislative framework and viable alternatives

On 10 April the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a hearing on the EU Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy in Brussels.

Opening the event, EESC member Antonello Pezzini stressed that nobody wanted to ban plastic, but rather to adapt the use of plastic to the new environmental challenges. “We need a new mind-set and we need innovation in order to achieve recyclable alternatives”, he said.

Cillian Lohan, a member of the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform as well as a member of the EESC, agreed that technology alone would not be enough to drive the transition but rather have to work in combination with widespread behaviour change. He was convinced that we could “drive behaviour changes if we offer valuable and affordable alternatives”. Addressing the way we consume would be a key element in terms of what we could achieve in the future. Referring to the necessary transition to a circular economy, he said that it appeared “compelling to move from the concept of consumers to the concept of users in terms of over-consumption and waste”.

Plastic is becoming one of the main environmental problems in the world. The image of the so-called Pacific Trash Vortex, also known as Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a plastic island bigger than the whole of Mexico drifting in the ocean as a result of the over-consumption, waste and non-recycling of plastic – has been a wake-up call for many people and encouraged a rethinking of the use of plastic. With the situation becoming urgent, the EU is seeking to transform the way plastic products are designed, produced, used and recycled, and to this end adopted a European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy on 16 January 2018. A recent Eurostat survey confirms that 87% of EU citizens are deeply concerned about the issue and as many as 92% would like to see a change.

Participants at the hearing were convinced that the momentum should be used to tackle the issue of plastic. They all welcomed the Commission’s strategy as an important step in the right direction, and Alberto Arroyo from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) called for rapid implementation of this “declaration of intentions” by harnessing the “tremendous popular support and economic potential” it had generated. The focus should not only be on recycling, but also on avoidance, i.e. on using less plastic. Furthermore, design for reuse had to have priority over recycling.

With regard to recycling, participants voiced concerns about how to preserve the quality of plastic. “Recycling must preserve quality for an infinite number of cycles, not down-cycling. The issue of purity needs to be addressed, ensured and preserved”, noted Laurent Zibell from the Industrial European Trade Union.

Dr Leonor Garcia from Plastic Europe represented the plastics industry, which in 2016 directly employed over 1.5 million people in Europe in more than 60 000 enterprises, most of them SMEs, with a turnover of EUR 350 billion. Furthermore, the sector was one of the top five most innovative sectors. Dr Garcia welcomed the Commission’s strategy since it provides the industry with opportunities it could not afford to miss. Accordingly Plastics Europe had introduced its “Plastics 2030 Voluntary Commitment” to prevent leakage of plastics into the environment, to improve resource efficiency; and to improve circularity of plastics packaging.
With this voluntary commitment, it wants to achieve 100% reuse, recycling and/or recovery of all plastic packaging by 2040. In her view, prevention and innovation have to go hand in hand: this meant “innovation not just in technologies but in the way we design, sort and select products,” she argued.

Nadine De Greef from the European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services (FEAD) called for joint efforts across the entire value chain, including binding measures combined with incentives and economic measures to ensure that objectives were implemented.

Adriana Rodrigo from the Rethink Plastic Alliance and Zero Waste Europe did stress the urgency of the problem and the need to act now. She called for better support of businesses which tried to implement new types of plastic packaging. Incentives could encourage industry to make different choices. She was critical of the fact that in the current system, one had to pay the same amount for single-use plastics and reusable plastics.

In his statement, Jacques Beall, from the French Economic, Social and Environmental Council welcomed the fact that the concept of waste had been expanded to include everything produced by ships and fishing vessels. He pointed in particular to fishing nets, which were virtually impossible to recycle.

The issues raised at the hearing will provide relevant input from civil society into the EESC opinion being drafted on the proposed Strategy and Directive.

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